If you have read my previous reviews, you might have noticed that I have a predilection for all things reflections, as well as for all things Michael Jackson. Therefore it should not come as a surprise that this book caught my attention. After all, it does describe itself as a book to be “appreciated by anyone who loved Jackson’s records and wants to understand the times he defined.”
Seriously, who has been listening in on my phone calls?
Slight X-Phile paranoia aside, The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson is a series of essays about the man, the artist, the legend and the victim that was Michael Jackson. It’s a great way to keep one’s feet on earth, both for those who tend to deify the man, as well as for those who tend to cast him as a corporate devil (neither of which he is). These essays by twenty-three thinkers from the music industry portray many of Michael Jacksons’ sides, thus appealing to many audiences: from the young, die-hard fan to the older music critic, from the music lover puzzled by the phenomenal success of songs he considers catchy at best to the one still awed by the magic of Michael Jackson’s performances, the point of views expressed in this book are varied, making all the richer.
Caught in our day-to-day lives and using music as a background soundtrack, we often forget all it can represent. After all, music can’t be separated from the social environment in which it was created, and Michael Jackson’s music was one of the things that was influenced by as well as influenced the 1980s and 1990s (albeit for very different reasons). This book provides a look at the greater social environment in which Michael Jackson’s music was born, evolved and, ultimately and quite unfortunately, died. Because Michael Jackson isn’t only about the music: “The contributors to the book do not always agree about Jackson’s music, but they all agree that Jackson was a symptom that needs to be reckoned with and analyzed” (Mark Fisher).
The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson is also a lesson in music appreciation, as its essays are a tribute of sorts to the fading art of music journalism. To be honest, I had never quite understood the importance of music journalism; like many others of my generation, music is what carries me through the many emotions of being a teenager and then a young adult. In a world of chaos and confusion, music tends to be my one constant. But, of course, music is a lot more than that. While for the veterans and professionals alike, Demise includes parts that they will consider obvious analysis as well as details and explanations they are quite familiar with, for those of us like myself who are just fans, it’s a great way to learn to appreciate music –- and particularly, Michael Jackson’s music –- in a totally different way.
Michael Jackson’s demise, according to Mark Fisher, started way before we tend to pinpoint its beginnings at. Some would point out the more advanced surgeries, the increasing eccentricities or the two child molestation charges (especially the second one), but Mark Fisher thinks it has to do with the release of Thriller. And if you think about it, it makes sense –- Thriller came out at a period in history that is never again going to happen, when mass marketing was starting and was still controlled by the very few, and international superstardom was easily accessible to anyone with enough talent and drive –- which Michael Jackson certainly did.
But the other reason Mark Fisher tells us that Michael Jackson’s Thriller marked the beginning of his demise is that with the hypercommodification of the artist through as phenomenal and influential a creation as Thriller, brought to life at a time that was basically a perfect setting for its propagation and dominance with little to no competition, the je-ne-sais-quoi that defined Jacksonism, which culminated with Off the Wall — and which Michael Jackson was shaped by -– died.
After all, as David Stubbs explains, “Thriller marked huge changes in the interfaces between pop, rock, R&B and MTV. If it marked another of the successive deaths that constitute Michael Jackson’s career (as shrewdly lampooned in the satirical US website The Onion’s mock-obituary, ‘Final Piece of Michael Jackson Dies’), then perhaps the album also marks, coincidentally, the death of soul itself. Who, after all, has really made a great, first-hand, stylistically unselfconscious soul record in the last twenty-five years? Has that been possible in the post-Thriller climate?” So many artists today were deeply influenced and are defined by Michael Jackson; “The whole ultra choreographed ‘X Factor’ world we now live in -– from Prince to Madonna to Britney to Beyoncé -– surely [started there]” (Barney Hoskyns). And it wasn’t just because of the special effects and over the top performances; it was because of what Michael Jackson represented: “The utopia of Michael Jackson, the universality of his music, had to do precisely with its challenge to this history of race in America,” as “everybody (…) intuitively understood that Michael Jackson raised ‘the possibility of living in a new way,’ at least as much as Elvis, The Beatles, or The Sex Pistols ever did” (Stephen Shaviro).
Thriller set the bar high for other artists, it’s true, but the one person for whom the bar was not only set, but was the source of a lifelong drive to surpass, was Michael Jackson himself. And the fact that he didn’t surpass his own self left behind the imaginary smell of failure, since despite their inability to surpass Thriller, Michael Jackson’s subsequent albums were quite successful: “The facts are: Bad sold 30 million copies, Dangerous sold 32 million, and even his poorly received last studio album, Invincible, apparently sold 12 million and that’s not even mentioning 1997’s Blood on the Dance Floor, the biggest selling remix album ever, with 6 million sales” (Paul Lester).
Where else could Michael Jackson therefore go, if not down into a sense of self-dissatisfaction? And so it seems tragically logical that he was destined to become more and more “wacko” to recapture something of that thrill of Thriller (cheap pun, I know).
This contributed to the further hypercommodification of Michael Jackson, a topic brilliantly tackled in Jeremy Gilbert’s essay, “The Real Abstraction of Michael Jackson,” which is in my opinion the most striking essay of the bunch. In it, Jeremy Gilbert reflects on what transforms a celebrity from a “real” person into deities: “One of the things that we mean when we say that an object or person is ‘real’ is that there is at least some limit to the number of times we can see its image reproduced on a daily or a local basis.” Seeing Michael Jackson everywhere, be it on the “Thriller” video clip that was constantly played on MTV, on subsequent, larger than life video clips such as “Remember the Time” and “Black or White,” in the various items linked to Michael Jackson (red leather jackets, fedoras, armbands) as well as on the promotional imagery for his various albums -– particularly for Dangerous (which included a 40 foot tall statue of Michael Jackson floating down the Thames), turned him from a mere talented artist to a deity of sorts. “To put this more simply, I was struck very powerfully by the sense that one of the things that we mean when we say that an object or person is ‘real’ is that there is at least some limit to the number of times we can see its image reproduced on a daily or a local basis; that there are only so many identical life-sized cardboard cut-outs of a person that can appear in public places before that person actually loses the quality of being real. The actuality of Michael Jackson seemed to have been not merely distorted, but overwhelmed, drowned in a sea of its own images” (Jeremy Gilbert).
Consequently, Michael Jackson, despite his natural talent and his uncanny ability to dazzle (or rather, because of them), became only about the dazzle. In his pursuit to dazzle, he often put himself to the side. “With Bad and its equally horrible successors Dangerous (1991), HIStory (1995) and Invisible (2001), he seemed to be second guessing what the public wanted instead of listening to his own instincts. More to the point, he’d lost touch with everything that was organically great about Michael Jackson” (Barney Hoskyns). Which is all the more ironic, as Michael Jackson was, potentially, the one artist who could have released just about anything he wanted and it would have easily sold in the millions, and yet he felt compelled to dilute his essence in creating something he thought would sell in the millions.
Perhaps this is why Michael Jackson seemed so burdened in the last years of his life. It was not only that he was broken by the child molestation accusations, but also that he never quite managed to dazzle us as much as he did with Thriller, and this weighed heavily on him. For a man who, as a child, was told that his worth was related to his ability to dazzle, it created a perfect storm for a breakdown. The battle between singing and performing as an expression of his inherent talent versus singing and performing only to dazzle, was a constant one throughout the second half of his life, and “you could sense his discomfort at having to pretend to be something he wasn’t. And yet, as the public probed him for signs of the opposite over the next few years, the more he felt pressured into proclaiming his manly vitality — hence, Bad followed by Dangerous followed by Invincible -– when really he was growing progressively weak” (Paul Lester). He had to be Michael Jackson the performer, which might have helped stifle Michael Jackson, the human.
When put in the context of this social reality, Michael Jackson’s song lyrics -– even those songs that are meant to be purely inspirational –- take on a whole other layer of meaning (check out Domonic Fox’s analysis of “Earth Song,” for example). It also helps understand, at least partly, Michael Jackson’s obsession with plastic surgery, which might have been an attempt to become someone that anyone could identify with –- the black man, the white woman, the black woman, the white woman -– Michael’s successive surgeries tried (unsuccessfully) to mould all of those characteristics into one persona, only to have it backfire: “You can be as raunchy as you want to be as long as you remain even closer to the pre-established stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Michael Jackson’s refusal or inability to do so is the least understood aspect of his persona” (Stephen Shaviro).
All of which seems to make Michael Jackson’s demise rather inevitable, and “later Michael Jackson, with his myriad conceits and eccentricities and physical disintegration, tells a more eloquent and tragic story about contemporary superstardom” (David Stubbs). Michael constant struggle to surpass himself and dazzle us à la Thriller was impossible, since today’s world, with YouTube and blogs, has become one of endless babble and little stories, “without great unifying narratives, and without global superstars or leaders. Jackson’s career should be a reminder to us not only that capitalism is cunning, deadly and very, very good at what it does, but also that things can always change (…) The final fate of Michael Jackson -– decrepit, deranged and broke -– stands as a warning to later generations, that even the biggest start the world has ever known cannot withstand the demands of capital alone” (Jean-François Lyotard).
No review could possibly cover the entirety of the concepts, themes and reflections this book engenders. The above reflections were only based on a minimal part of the book. I have a whole other document of notes that I took while reading The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson. And I must warn you: it might give you an irresistible urge to purchase even more books about music journalism and Jacksonism.
And who knows; perhaps Michael Jackson’s legacy could be the most unexpected of all: that an entire generation who grew up with his music, in their attempt to understand how his promising career crashed like it did, will learn to appreciate music for more than a mere background soundtrack that blocks out the world around them, becoming instead another way to understand that confusing and chaotic world, thus helping them gain a certain measure of control on it and helping to advance human civilization.
Wouldn’t that be a legacy worthy of the King of Pop?
First published here on Blogcritics.
Published on Sahar’s Reviews in June 2013.